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So, having just read a novel about a Belgian detective written by an English author, and whom I encountered in print for the first time in a French translation, I move on to a novel about a French Commissaire written by a Belgian author, and whom I am accessing here via an English translation. I'd be confused - if they weren't such utterly different characters.

For Maigret, it transpires, is nothing like Poirot. Where Poirot is genteel and elegant to the point of fussiness, Maigret is worldly and practical. He's willing to chase criminals across muddy fields and physically overpower them if necessary, in a manner which Poirot delicately leaves to Hastings and Japp. Where Poirot proceeds via Order and Method, Maigret follows up gut instincts and intuition until he sniffs out the truth. Which is not to say that Maigret doesn't pick up on the little mistakes his subjects make, or that Poirot isn't guided also by his psychological judgements about people's characters - but Maigret is definitely inhabiting a more realistic world, in which a less supernaturally-intellectual method of detection is required. Most fundamentally of all, while Poirot is clearly the no. 1 subscriber to the cult of his own personality, Maigret is introverted and even gruff, very much preferring to skulk alone in the shadows than to be surrounded by crowds of appreciative admirers. If it weren't for the fact that he smokes a pipe and is explicitly described as overweight, he'd put me strongly in mind of the chap from the "You're never alone with a Strand" advert.

Simenon, too, is nothing like Christie. Quite apart from the colourful life story I've just been reading about on Wikipedia, his prose is oozing with exactly the elements I complained were absent from Christie's - richness of setting and atmosphere. You can see the exact configuration of the Three Widows crossroads at which Maigret spends most of the book as you read; and what's more the character of the houses there, the shape of the landscape and the rustlings of the natural world around all serve to enhance and support the development of the story. There's no question about who is the better writer here - and what makes that all the more astonishing is the sheer pace with which Simenon churned it out. This is one of no less than TEN Maigret novels which he published in 1931 alone - by contrast, even Agatha Christie, who can hardly be said to have suffered from writer's block, seems to have managed no more than a modest two or three a year for most of her career. It makes you wonder how he found time for all the womanising.

Which brings me on to my chief complaint about the story, which is that the women of Simenon's fictional world get a pretty raw deal as characters. They are all, without exception, either wives or whores, and nothing much beyond. Even the most prominent of them, Else Anderson, who is initially presented as alluring and intriguing and does prove to be rather brighter than most of the other characters, is eventually unmasked as "the typical tart, ordinary and vulgar, healthy and cunning". Meanwhile poor old Mme. Maigret gets to appear for a total of two-thirds of a page in the entire novel, during which she is permitted to pack her husband a suitcase and express mild concern for his safety, while he largely ignores her and storms off in pursuit of his criminals. Maigret is, in fact, to all intents and purposes a single man (like Sherlock Holmes and Poirot), and I'd much rather Simenon had just written him that way. But I suppose that would have seemed unthinkable for a middle-aged police inspector in the 1930s, and so he has to be equipped with this cardboard cut-out of a wife instead.

There's not much point in complaining about it, really - it was 1931 after all. But the fact remains that this is man-fiction, written by a man for other men. Which means that for all its stylish prose, there's just not that much here for me, now that I have grasped the basic parameters of Maigret's world. It's been an interesting and enjoyable investigation, but if I return it will probably only be because I've stumbled across a cheap copy of one of Simenon's novels in French, and want to take the chance to experience him in his original language. Otherwise, I don't think it's terribly likely.

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( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 15th, 2009 06:39 pm (UTC)
I haven't read any of the Maigret books in years (nor Poirot, come to that) but as I remember them I wouldn't disagree with your assessment. I think I did once struggle with a Maigret novel in French, which I certainly couldn't do now...

Perhaps, to continue the European theme, you should try crime stories written by an Englishman living in France about a Dutch detective (with a wife who is far from being a cardboard cutout) - Nicholas Freeling's Van Der Valk series (or his later series featuring Henri Castang).

(For what it may be worth, unlike Maigret and Poirot, Freeling's books do have a permanent place on my bookshelves.)
Mar. 15th, 2009 08:36 pm (UTC)
Hehe - yes, that would round things off nicely! I must admit that I have acquired a couple more Poirot novels lately, and will be working my way through them in the not-too-distant future. But it's not because I think Christie is a particularly gifted writer - my real interest is in the work of televisual genius that is the TV series. I'm reading the novels as background for that rather than the other way round.
Mar. 15th, 2009 08:02 pm (UTC)
Yeah I've read some Maigret books in French and poor Mme Maigret really is the stereotypical French wife! :)
Mar. 15th, 2009 08:39 pm (UTC)
Poor lady... It would be funny for someone now to write a post-modern feminist novel all about her, in which she actually turns out to be living her own secret life as the sassy, startlingly intelligent and entirely self-assured queen of a massive crime organisation, but Maigret never notices because he pays so little attention to her. That would show him!
Mar. 16th, 2009 03:38 pm (UTC)
You could do that :)
Mar. 15th, 2009 10:31 pm (UTC)
Generally speaking I prefer celibate detectives, but Maigret's bourgeois domesticity (interestingly so different from Simenon's own rackety private life) is the moral base from which he operates. And Maigret is a very moral detective- happy to bend the law if he thinks it will serve a higher justice. It's true that Madame Maigret hardly exists as a character in her own right (and I think we would find her intrusive if she did) but she's a very important factor in the universe of the novels. She's Maigret's bedrock.

Simenon had a fairly low opinion of human nature I think- both male and female. I suspect there was a fair bit of self-hatred involved. For a novel with (as I remember) a sympathetic female character and some detestable male ones- try Yellow Dog.
Mar. 16th, 2009 12:31 pm (UTC)
Ah, OK - no, I like that idea of Mme. Maigret as the bedrock of her husband's morality. It's not very evident in the particular novel I read, but I can respect that as a general theme. And I certainly like the trope of the moral detective - I could hardly enjoy either Holmes or Poirot if I didn't.
Mar. 16th, 2009 03:38 pm (UTC)
I also struggled with a French Maigret book (down to at least the end of the first page!)

Have you read Lord Peter Wimsey books? Milly swears by them (although, I think they are maybe 20s not 30s). Written by a woman.
Mar. 16th, 2009 03:49 pm (UTC)
Ooh, thanks for the tip! I've just looked them up, and they sound great. It seems they span the '20s and the '30s, and actually I'm particularly interested now I see that they were written by Dorothy L. Sayers, as I lived in a street with a blue plaque commemorating her for a year in Oxford, and I've always vaguely thought I ought to actually read something by her for that reason. I shall add some Lord Peter Wimsey to my 'to read' list forthwith!
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )

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